Could it be that the localist moment has arrived? Quite unexpectedly the Coalition government has created a once in a generation opportunity to change the landscape of political decision making in Britain. It could be one of those rare moments in political history where policy idea meets the sweet spot of political opportunity. The political crisis created by the MPs' expenses scandal, the shock of the financial and economic crisis and the erosion of trust in big government has created the conditions for an unexpected revolution.
The concept of ‘decentralisation’ is now right at the heart of the agenda of the government. It is, arguably, the defining concept of its governing philosophy. The idea of devolving power from the centre to individuals, local government and communities is now central to the reforming ambitions of the Coalition, particularly in the wider set of policies within the idea of the big society.
Over the years the drive towards centralisation has been inexorable – a centrifugal force which has become unstoppable and has come at a considerable price. Indeed, I would argue that this long march of centralisation has been one of the main causes of the problems that have manifested themselves over the last two decades – the collapse of trust in politics and the effectiveness of political decision making; the ineffective way in which central government has handled the management of public services and the general sense within local communities that political decision making has become remote from the grass-roots of social life. These forces also had the affect of snuffing out the culture of volunteering, of mutuality and sense of community which had previously been characteristic of many local areas.
There are two ends of the spectrum within the localist movement. The first, ‘localist fundamentalists’ believe that we need to sweep away all existing institutions of the discredited central state – including local government as we know it – in order to usher in a bright, hopeful localist utopia. There have been some good ideas which have have been cast in this fundamentalist mould – Directly-Elected Police Chiefs and Directly-Elected Mayors for England’s cities being just two examples.
‘Pragmatic localists’ are more willing to see a continued and central role for local government in the delivery of a localist future. They believe that existing structures – including Parish Councils which already provide small scale accountability and mechanisms for local accountability in many areas of the country – should be moulded to suit localist ends and not thrown out as redundant relics of the past.
The pragmatic localists are no less radical and share many of the characteristics of the fundamentalists; for example, they believe that where possible, decision making should be decentralised to the lowest practical level in the fundamental belief that as a result better, more effective and more locally responsive decisions will be taken.
There are also sceptics who say, dismissively, that all this talk of localism is just a disguise for an ideological attack on the state and ideologically driven spending cuts. These critics may be surprised to see that this localist revolution, far from being traditionally ideological, is a genuine response to the political and social malaise brought on by the corrosive power of centralisation.
On the other hand, these sorts of critics will probably never be convinced. There is also another group of sceptics who say that it is easy to be a localist in opposition but the realities of power make centralisers of us all. The culture of government in Britain, so the argument goes, is such that it is impossible to resist the centralising impulse – to try and reform it is like tilting at windmills.
The Government’s early decisions to scrap RDAs and do away with Regional Spatial Strategies have been such an important early move in the revolution. It sends the signal that the era of remote, bureaucratic and unaccountable government is over and that local government, working with their communities, are now responsible and accountable for making key decisions on crucial areas such as economic development and spatial planning, and are directly accountable to local people for their decisions. This is localism in action.
Local government also needs to force itself out of the rigid and often mechanistic thinking which has been forced on it by trying to conform to the top down performance targets and expectations set by Whitehall and its many agents of central control. Local government must be prepared to take the initiative and not wait to be told what to do. If the localist revolution is to truly take hold we urgently need a local government which embraces innovation with more people prepared to take on the status quo and stand up for their local communities. There will also be tensions and reversals, and therefore local government must be prepared to take a position on Coalition reforms on issues such as schools, the NHS and policing.
So there needs to be a radical change of political culture – both locally and nationally – and the Department of Communities and Local Government under new Secretary of State Eric Pickles has acted quickly in the early days of the Coalition, creating a sense of urgency and momentum. The forthcoming Decentralisation and Localism Bill will provide a further legislative entrenchment of this reform momentum.
For this localist revolution is not just about tinkering with our governance arrangements, but about a radical change in the way public services are delivered locally. The Government is pressing ahead with 16 ‘Community Budget’ areas next year which will demonstrate the way in which the siloed delivery of public services in local areas can produce huge amounts of duplication and waste.
We need to act quickly – as the Coalition government is on a number of fronts – so that decentralisation quickly becomes part of the eco-system of government and gains an evolutionary foot hold. Some ideas will take hold, flourish and become established. Others, though they seemed like good ideas at the time, may fail or change into something else. That is why this cannot be a prescriptive revolution – it thrives on the fertile soil of innovation and initiative.
Just after I was elected to the House of Commons in May I received a text message from a Local Government Leader which said ‘Congratulations – another localist at the centre’. There are quite a few us now who have taken our places at the centre and are determined to use the power that we have to give more of it away.